Vanuatu: Exploring Espiritu Santo

Saturday night (24 August) the winds picked up and we started nodding into the increasingly large chop in Luganville Bay. By the time we had got up and breakfasted on Sunday morning the wind was still increasing and the anchorage was quickly becoming untenable. So we stowed everything away and weighed anchor. We headed out into the Segon Channel which runs along the bottom of Espiritu Santo. It was horrible, large seas of 2m and wind on the nose. We couldn’t punch into it and make any sort of speed without running the engine very hot so we just had to put up with it and at times couldn’t even make 2 knots. The wind was now howling at up to 30 knots. As we rounded Million Dollar Point the wind thankfully moved behind us and we were able to pull out a reefed genoa and make better way in the rough conditions.

By 13.37 we had worked our way in through the reefs and were anchored in Surunda Bay which was a delight. The bay was large, protected, and with lots of room and good holding in sand.

We joined SV Bla Ellinor and SV Macluska in the anchorage and were followed in by SV Mezzaluna who had just arrived from Malekula. We enjoyed the relative calm of the anchorage and had a quiet night on board.

Monday morning we headed to the beach as we wanted to go into Luganville to re-provision. We asked permission of the landowner, as the beaches are public but the land fronting them is private and we need to go through their grounds to reach the main road. You can see how seriously this particular one takes his privacy – check out his welcome sign LOL.

At the main road, we hitched a ride with a chatty woman who lives on one of the local huge cattle plantations and she informed us of where to find everything in Luganville and refused any petrol money. (Vanuatu is famous for its organic beef and Espiritu Santo is where most of the cattle are reared.) It was very kind of her to take us into town. We wandered the main street and we headed into a local butchers. They had a great selection of beef but not much else so we just bought some steak. Then it was on to the large market for some fresh fruit and vegetables which were all priced up so we knew we were paying the local price and not inflated tourist ones.

I had a look at the local food being prepared by women in the market but didn’t try anything as there wasn’t much that appealed to be honest. The women were quite shy but I managed to get a few smiles out of them in the end.

Moving on we headed to the town’s largest supermarket. We found most things that we wanted including some special goodies as we were hosting sundowners on board Morphie in the evening. Fully laden we got a taxi to take us back to the beach and then dinked back to the boat. The taxi driver wanted V1500 (just over £10) for the 15 minute drive and we haggled him down to V1000 which was fine, especially as we had got into town for free earlier in the day.

Back on board we put everything away, tidied up, and prepared for the gang to descend on us at 16.30. We did an Indian vegetarian platter of snacks plus some cheeses and fresh vegetable crudites with dips. We had one person with a wheat allergy and one vegan so it was a challenge to do an evening which catered for all and luckily the supermarket had a range of suitable products we could offer. We had a lovely evening with Jeff and Katie (SV Mezzaluna – USA), Mark (SV Macluska – UK) and Aso and Dan (SV Bla Ellinor – Sweden). Was fun.

Tuesday was a lovely day with the sun shining (which we haven’t seen much of this season). But sadly the wind was still too strong and in the wrong direction to head back to Luganville. We also found out that the diving on the famous sites is shore diving which is probably too difficult for me to do with my dodgy back – walking across the reef carrying all the weights and equipment would not be a good idea – so we are looking into whether we can find a company offering boat diving. We found one but weren’t able to fix a date in advance as this is so weather dependent. We will continue with our adventure and hope to sort this out for another time later.

In the afternoon we went ashore to have dinner Vanuatu style. We had received permission to use the ‘picnic’ area from the local village and so we gathered wood (with some help from the kids) and built a fire on the beach near the local fishing boats.

We got it going and then put our dishes on the flames. We had good fun and were entertained by Jeff so we had a camp fire sing along. The local kids were enjoying themselves too and stayed the evening chatting and entertaining us. Quite a few other cruisers came over from anchored boats so it was all very social. Before we returned to Morphie at the end of the evening we fed the kids the remainder of our pot luck dishes – and they loved it. The only downside to the evening was that I had forgotten my glasses (as I was wearing my sunnies) so had to stay mysterious wearing sunglasses in the dark like a right plonker LOL.

Wednesday morning and the gang decided to do a six mile dinghy ride to a nearby blue hole but we had decided we were going to take Morphie into Peterson Bay (which was too shallow for the others). So we went back into town for a final provisioning run as we expect to be on anchor for a while now. We managed to hitch a ride again, had a wander around, stopped in a local cafe/bakery for a cold drink and respite from the blistering humid stormy heat of the day. Shopping completed we returned by taxi, this time only paying V500 so that was a bargain!

Later in the afternoon (having done some hand washing) we headed to the beach and went bobbing. This is a lovely bay with sandy beaches and protected waters – definitely the best we have been in for a long time. The village kids were there to join us again and we had catered for them this time by providing chocolate bourbon biscuits. This went down a treat and we had fun with them. They also showed us their climbing skills by sitting in the trees above our heads while we were in the sea. More turned up – so additional biscuits handed out – and Richard really liked the little boy with the wild hair. What a fantastic bunch of pikininis*. They entertained us with their singing so we sang some songs and got them to join in with the actions too (“if you are happy and you know it clap your hands” etc).

[*Before getting criticised by the PC crowd, let me explain. Pikinini is found in Melanesian pidgin and other languages such as Bislama of Vanuatu. This is the usual world for ‘child’ of either a person or an animal and may refer to children of any race. It is not a derogatory or racist term here unlike its potential usage in the UK.]

Thursday morning and we checked the weather again and it was looking good for the run to North Peterson Bay. The entrance pass through this area is very shallow and can only be attempted at a minimum of one hour before high tide. So we checked the tide and double checked our navigational waypoints. Quite daunting but we had an alternative anchorage once through the outer passage if we didn’t fancy navigating through the inner one. So we picked up anchor at 1pm and headed out.

Having travelled just over 5 miles we headed towards the outer pass and then decided to continue through the inner pass with Richard sticking to the route while I eyeballed the coral bombies all around (which wasn’t that easy as the visibility was reduced by heavy cloud cover). It was quite nerve wracking as the route meandered and the reported navigational aides were missing apart from two scaffold poles at the entrance. At one point, we only had 4ft under the keel. By 14.30 we had anchor down in the bay (having travelled a huge 6.86 miles) and were delighted to be here. The anchorage is one of the most protected yet is still open to receiving the breeze – lovely!

Having settled we dinghied ashore to the Oyster Island resort only to find it was closed for refurbishment – which was disappointing. Never mind back on board and we watched three other boats come in although not all of them came through to the upper lagoon. We had a nice dinner (keeping the vegetable peelings for the dugongs that supposedly live in this lagoon) and sat in the cockpit enjoying the surroundings. We spotted two boats further north of us and there were lights on the beach so, on further investigation using Ovitalmap (where satellite images are available offline) we found Turtle Bay Lodge so may try and visit that tomorrow. We had a lovely night on anchor and barely moved despite the strong winds.

Friday morning and we had breakfast watching the local traffic come and go. There must be villages hidden behind the waterside foliage as we have seen many boats turn up with locals laden down with shopping. Our plan for the day was to visit the Mateluvu Blue Hole up the windey river. But we had to wait for the tide to come in a bit to get over the sandbar at the entrance and we took off in dink for our exploration leaving Morphie sitting pretty in the lagoon surrounded by jungle. Just such a shame about this permanently grey cloudy weather…..

We eventually managed to get over the sandbar and were first greeted by cows on the river bank who watched us go through into the river entrance. We were glad we had come through as early as possible as there were lots of hazards (particularly rocks and tree roots) that would not be so clearly visible when the tide came up. We meandered through slowly admiring the scenery and watching the water turn from muddy silty brown to beautiful clear fresh water with a layer of plants moving with the motion of the water.

At the blue hole we were greeting by some locals who asked us to pay an admission fee of V500 each. That’s fine, someone has gone to a lot of trouble to do some landscaping and put up picnic areas etc. We then wandered around and took some photos, chatting for a while with an English family who were both GPS and had been working in Luganville for a couple of months and the kids were in the international school. They were now coming to the end of their stint here. The kids were fearless jumping from the rope swings but came back a bit blue as the water was freezing! We enjoyed the transquility of the place but didn’t fancy getting that cold…..

We headed back just as it started to rain. Back on board we picked up anchor and edged our way carefully up the lagoon (which is uncharted) staying close to the centre where the depths are deeper. It was quite deep all the way and we dropped our anchor again in 10m and got ourselves settled. The cloudy weather was doing our battery bank no good as the solar gains were so limited so we ran the engine for a little while to give them a top up.

Then we headed ashore to the Turtle Bay Lodge and settled in at the Salty Dog Bar and Restaurant. Lovely little place and very cruiser friendly. But getting ashore was challenging with the incoming tide and we had to tie dink off to a fallen tree in the water (with Richard doing his monkey impression on the trunk) while I tied the stern off to some rocks on the other side of the inlet. Finally ashore (a bit soggy) we enjoyed a few cold beers and had a late lunch. Was very nice.

When we left at 5ish the tide was almost at its height and the tree was partially submerged….it was pretty dangerous to get dink back to the shallows without him surfing onto the rocks either side of the inlet – and, of course, we got completely soaked. Richard was concerned because his tree trunk was now underwater and every time the surge took the dinghy the knots got tighter and he struggled to get it untied without falling in! Back on board (somewhat relieved) we had a nice quiet evening in the cockpit before having another early night.

Saturday morning we debated our options. The high tide here is getting later each evening so we decided to leave that afternoon so that we could get through the shallow pass and back to Surunda before dark.

So we had a lazy day (and no internet access) just reading and relaxing. Then at 15.45 we picked up anchor and motored slowly towards the shallow pass. The first bit was relatively straightforward and we saw 10 ft under the keel. The rest was more challenging and, of course, the clouds returned just in time to make eye-ball navigation more difficult. But we made it through although a bit confused by the depths. On the way in, on a 3ft tide, we saw 4ft under the keel. Following our path back out exactly on a 4ft tide, we saw 3ft under the keel. Go figure!

We motorsailed back to Surunda Bay and got anchored before dark. Had a nice quiet evening on board although had to retreat down below in the torrential rain.

This morning (Sunday) we ran the weather again and the relatively settled weather that had suddenly appeared the day before looked like it was going to persist for about three days. So this could be our chance to go diving! Woo hoo. At 7.50 we picked up anchor and motor sailed out through the reef systems and between a couple of small islands (with a couple of wrecks on the reefs to remind mariners of the hazards). It was still grey and a bit rolly as we came out from the shallow water into the deep blue but it soon settled down and the sun even tried to come out.

We rounded the bottom of Espiritu Santo at Million Dollar Point

and then went through the channel to Luganville Bay (which we had been forced out of last week due to dangerous conditions). It was flat calm with people on the beach fishing in front of the small resort. We’ll be going ashore later to explore and ever hopeful that we may see some sun today.

If the current weather forecast is correct (and that will be a first) it looks like we have an opportunity to start moving south to visit some more remote villages on Wednesday but will obviously keep running the models just to make sure, as we are potentially going against prevailing winds and tides.

In the meantime, I’ll finish with a picture of Richard’s favourite pikinini LOL.

Bye for now